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Reverse Engineering Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock… and Ourselves.

Filed under: Media, News, Security
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I have something in common with Ahmed Mohamed: as a youngster, I was also an electronics enthusiast. At his age and even earlier, I frequently took apart electronic devices – anything from my own toys, to broken things around the house, and even that dirty garbage-picked black and white TV my parents dragged home that they knew I’d have a blast playing with (I did.) I’d try and troubleshoot, repair, or sometimes just disassemble things and salvage components for future projects. I’d try and imagine how all those bits and pieces, lengths of wires, mazes of conductive circuit board traces all came together to produce an image, or a sound, or some other useful function. I wanted to know how it all worked.

Without dating myself – fast forward a bunch of years, and I’m the same way. I’ve even picked up an engineering degree over the course of those years. I don’t have to only imagine how things work anymore, I have a pretty good understanding now. When shopping for electronic devices, my first instinct is to see if there’s a way to build one myself (and, I frequently do!) When something of mine breaks, I don’t send it back, I take it as a personal challenge to get it working again. If I fail, I still salvage useful parts – they might come in handy to fix something else later. This aspect of myself – being both methodical, and curious – hasn’t changed a bit over the years.

High resolution police photo of Ahmed's clock. Click to enlarge.

High resolution police photo of Ahmed’s clock. Click to enlarge.

So, this story about a 14 year old boy in Texas that was arrested on suspicion of creating a bomb hoax (who, apparently just wanted to show off his latest electronics project to his teachers) that has blown up (no pun intended) all over the news and social media, caught my attention immediately. Not because of his race, or his religion, the seeming absurdity of the situation, the emotionally charged photo of a young boy in a NASA t-shirt being led off in hand cuffs, the hash tags, the presidential response… no, none of that. I’m an electronics geek. I was interested in the clock! I wanted to figure out what he had come up with.

I found the highest resolution photograph of the clock I could. Instantly, I was disappointed. Somewhere in all of this – there has indeed been a hoax. Ahmed Mohamed didn’t invent his own alarm clock. He didn’t even build a clock. Now, before I go on and get accused of attacking a 14 year old kid who’s already been through enough, let me explain my purpose. I don’t want to just dissect the clock. I want to dissect our reaction as a society to the situation. Part of that is the knee-jerk responses we’re all so quick to make without facts. So, before you scroll down and leave me angry comments, please continue to the end (or not – prove my point, and miss the point, entirely!)

For starters, one glance at the printed circuit board in the photo, and I knew we were looking at mid-to-late 1970s vintage electronics. Surely you’ve seen a modern circuit board, with metallic traces leading all over to the various components like an electronic spider’s web. You’ll notice right away the highly accurate spacing, straightness of the lines, consistency of the patterns. That’s because we design things on computers nowadays, and computers assist in routing these lines. Take a look at the board in Ahmed’s clock. It almost looks hand-drawn, right? That’s because it probably was. Computer aided design was in its infancy in the 70s. This is how simple, low cost items (like an alarm clock) were designed. Today, even a budding beginner is going to get some computer aided assistance – in fact they’ll probably start there, learning by simulating designs before building them. You can even simulate or lay out a board with free apps on your phone or tablet. A modern hobbyist usually wouldn’t be bothered with the outdated design techniques. There’s also silk screening on the board. An “M” logo, “C-94” (probably, a part number – C might even stand for “clock”), and what looks like an American flag. More about that in a minute. Point for now being, a hobbyist wouldn’t silk screen logos and part numbers on their home made creation. It’s pretty safe to say already we’re looking at ’70s tech, mass produced in a factory.

So I turned to eBay, searching for vintage alarm clocks. It only took a minute to locate Ahmed’s clock. See this eBay listing, up at the time of this writing. Amhed’s clock was invented, and built, by Micronta, a Radio Shack subsidary. Catalog number 63 765.

Image property of eBay seller curiosities_curios

Image property of eBay seller curiosities_curios

The shape and design is a dead give away. The large screen. The buttons on the front laid out horizontally would have been on a separate board – a large snooze button, four control buttons, and two switches to turn the alarm on and off, and choose two brightness levels. A second board inside would have contained the actual “brains” of the unit. The clock features a 9v battery back-up, and a switch on the rear allows the owner to choose between 12 and 24 hour time. (Features like a battery back-up, and a 24 hour time selection seems awful superfluous for a hobby project, don’t you think?) Oh, and about that “M” logo on the circuit board mentioned above? Micronta.

clock5

clock6For one last bit of confirmation, I located the pencil box Ahmed used for his project. During this video interview he again claims it was his “invention” and that he “made” the device – but the important thing at the moment, at 1:13, we see him showing the pencil box on his computer screen. Here it is on Amazon, where it’s clearly labeled as being 8.25 inches wide. Our eBay seller also conveniently took a photo of the clock next to a ruler to show it’s scale – about 8 inches wide. The dimensions all line up perfectly.

So there you have it folks, Ahmed Mohamed did not invent, nor build a clock. He took apart an existing clock, and transplanted the guts into a pencil box, and claimed it was his own creation. It all seems really fishy to me.

If we accept the story about “inventing” an alarm clock is made up, as I think I’ve made a pretty good case for, it’s fair to wonder what other parts of the story might be made up, not reported factually by the media, or at least, exaggerated.

I refer back again to this YouTube video interview with Ahmed. He explains that he closed up the box with a piece of cord because he didn’t want it to look suspicious. I’m curious, why would “looking suspicious” have even crossed his mind before this whole event unfolded, if he was truly showing off a hobby project, something so innocuous as an alarm clock. Why did he choose a pencil box, one that looks like a miniature briefcase no less, as an enclosure for a clock? It’s awful hard to see the clock with the case closed. On the other hand, with the case open, it’s awful dangerous to have an exposed power transformer sitting near the snooze button (unless, perhaps his invention was to stop serial-snooze-button pressers by giving them a dangerous electrical shock!)

So again, I’m pointing all this out – about the specifics of the clock – not to pick on the poor kid. I’m picking on us, our culture, and our media. I don’t even care about the clock itself at this point.

If we stop and think – was it really such a ridiculous reaction from the teacher and the police in the first place? How many school shootings and incidents of violence have we had, where we hear afterwards “this could have been prevented, if only we paid more attention to the signs!” Teachers are taught to be suspicious and vigilant. Ahmed wasn’t accused of making a bomb – he was accused of making a look-alike, a hoax. And be honest with yourself, a big red digital display with a bunch of loose wires in a brief-case looking box is awful like a Hollywood-style representation of a bomb. Everyone jumped to play the race and religion cards and try and paint the teachers and police as idiots and bigots, but in my mind, they were probably acting responsibly and erring on the side of caution to protect the rest of their students, just in case. “This wouldn’t have happened if Ahmed were white,” they say. We’re supposed to be sensitive to school violence, but apparently religious and racial sensitivity trumps that. At least we have another clue about how the sensitivity and moral outrage pecking order lies.

Because, is it possible, that maybe, just maybe, this was actually a hoax bomb? A silly prank that was taken the wrong way? That the media then ran with, and everyone else got carried away? Maybe there wasn’t even any racial or religious bias on the parts of the teachers and police.

I don’t know any of these things. But I’m intellectually mature enough to admit I don’t know, and to also be OK with that. I don’t feel a need to take the first exit to conclusionville. But I do like to find facts where I can, and prefer to let them lead me to conclusions, rather than a knee jerk judgement based on a headline or sound bite.

I think the whole event – and our collective response, with everybody up to the President chiming in, says a whole lot about us. We don’t care that none of us were there and knows what happened, we jump to conclusions and assume we’re experts. We care about the story, but we don’t care about the actual facts. Headlines and click-bait are far more interesting than thinking for ourselves. We like to point out other any bit of perceived injustice or discrimination we can find – it’s practically a new national past-time. We like playing victim, and we like talking about victims – so much so we sometimes find victims where none really existed. We also like to find somebody to blame, even when there’s nobody at fault. We like to play social justice warrior on our Facebooks and Twitters, posting memes and headlines without digging in behind the sensationalism, winning bonus sensitivity points in the forms of likes and re-tweets. Once group-think kicks in, we rally around hash tags and start shouting moral outrage in a deafeningly loud national chorus. The media plays us like a fiddle, and we don’t even notice we’ve all been had.

As for me, I’m glad to apply the lessons I’ve learned as an electronics enthusiast to other aspects of life. There’s no emotion in troubleshooting a circuit, electricity doesn’t have morals. There’s just physics, and logic, and methodology. I think we could all benefit from applying a little more of that sort of thinking to these situations.

* Correction: A reader and commenter, Joe Donaldson, tracked down the clock in a Radio Shack catalog dated 1986. It’s likely that my guess of mid-to-late 70s was off by a bit, and it’s now obvious it was a model that was for sale in the mid 80s. Though it doesn’t really change the point, I want to post this correction here for accuracy sake and thank Joe for the heads up. (See the comment here, with link to the catalog page.)


NASA to Bomb the Moon Friday Morning

Filed under: News, Security, Space, Technology
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30444863While it may sound like a headline straight off the presses at The Onion, I assure you it is not. NASA will be “bombing” the Moon tomorrow morning – not once, but twice. To be accurate, there is no bomb per se. The NASA LCROSS mission will slam a spacecraft into the Moon’s Cabeus crater at 7:31AM EST time on Friday.

The mission will happen in two stages: a rocket delivering the impact payload will send the payload craft at close to 6,000 miles per hour into the crater. The delivery rocket, specially equipped to detect the presence of water will chase behind, fly through the debris cloud, and then smack into the crater approximately four minutes later.  The hope is, that by kicking up enough Moon stuff into the “air,” scientists will be able to detect the presence of water that may be hidden just under the surface.  The crater was chosen as a likely candidate because it lives in the shadows and hasn’t seen sunlight in perhaps millions of years.  It’s cold temperatures may have allowed for frozen water to remain locked away, whereas moisture exposed to the heat and light would have boiled off into space countless ages ago. It’s likely the moisture itself was delivered from violent impacts in the past, when ice laden meteorites crashed into the lunar surface.

So what’s the point?  The discovery of water on the Moon may mean it can support life. Not life native to the Moon of course, but it could help support human life. A “Space Base” on the Moon may some day make use of the moisture for drinking water, and even splitting it into its constituent parts to make breathable air. If moisture is detected, NASA has plans for follow up missions to drill several feet into the Moon to get a better look.

Aside from being able to detect moisture, the chase craft is also equipped with high definition video cameras. NASA has an entire event planned, including a stream of the live footage. The event can be seen on the NASA channel on cable, or live at the NASA LCROSS website. It begins at 6:15AM. The debris cloud from the impact is expected to be large enough that it should be visible to the amateur astronomer with a typical hobby telescope.

Just some final notes: For those of you who spend more time hugging trees than reading science books, please take a moment to put this impact in context. The force of the impact in relation to the size of the Moon is on the order of a mosquito hitting the windshield of a dump truck at highway speed. It pales in comparison to the impacts that have rained down on the surface of the moon for millions of years.  This will not harm the Moon – how do you think the giant crater NASA is targeting got there in the first place? And… for the conspiracy theorists who think it’s cover to test weapon capabilities – I’m not even going to try to convince you otherwise. We already know sending things to the Moon is ripe for spinning convoluted tales…

I’ll leave you with this prophetic clip from Mr. Show.


The Great Digital Delay

23181544This morning, in an unanimous vote, the U.S. Senate has agreed to delay the government mandated digital television transition. The target has been moved from the original February 17th date to June 12th.

(Updated: The bill has been voted down in the house. More info at the bottom.)

Media reports have been all over the map, with sources suggesting anywhere from 5 million to 20 million US households are unprepared for the transition.  There have also been reports of as many as 2.5 million on the FCC’s waiting list for their converter box coupon program.  13.5 million coupons have been passed out, but it’s estimated that roughly half have not been used.  The coupons carry a 90 day expiration, and as the unused coupons expire those on the waiting list will get a shot at one.

President Obama has called for an additional $850 million as part of his stimulus package to provide additional funding to the FCC coupon program.

The FCC has of course already auctioned off and collected it’s nearly $20 billion dollars to re-license the wireless spectrum that would have been freed in just 3 weeks.  (Why again, does the FCC need another $850 million of taxpayer’s dollars to cover the coupon shortfall? Anyway…)

Major players AT&T and Verizon will have to wait until June to begin using their newly acquired slice of the airwaves, though this morning’s bill includes a 116 day extension to the end of their original licenses as compensation.

(Shameless plug warning: who needs OTA anyway, when you’ve got Artvoice TV?)

Update, Wednesday Jan 28: Despite the unanimous vote and the support from President Obama, it turns out this bill was not a shoo-in after all. Because the bill had been fast-tracked in the House, it required 2/3rds votet here before reaching the President’s desk; however, this morning it was shot down by a 256 to 168 vote. So it’s not over yet folks. The House may vote next week for a second time on the issue. In the mean time, we can say the great digital delay… has been delayed.


Post Election Bits & Bytes

Election ’08 is now in the history books – so I figured it’s time to take a look backward, and a look forward at some relevant headlines.

Hacking Democracy

First, we’ll take a look at one of the best kept secrets of the campaign season, from both sides, care of a Newsweek article published just today.  Over the summer, the FBI had its hands full with simultaneous cyber crime investigations: the hacking of the Obama campaign computer system(s), and the hacking of the McCain campaign computer system(s).  While the intrusions have been acknowledged,  little else has been released or confirmed yet.  At this point, it’s known for sure that the FBI was involved, that “a large number of files” were stolen from the Obama side, and that the attacks came from a “foreign entity” and definitely did not come from the opposing sides.  The McCain campaign systems were intruded on in a similar fashion as the Obama systems, but the extent of the compromise on their side was unmentioned.  The rest is speculation of course: security experts have suggested the attacks likely came from China or Russia, and anyone’s best guess is that the goal of such an intrusion was to gain an inside line on procedures and policies used by the campaigns for a leg up in future dealings with the to-be president. (H/T to Newsweek)

This of course wasn’t the only politically motivated cyber-crime this campaign season – I’m sure many recall the Sarah Palin e-mail intrusion back in September.  Though it’s significance is near nil at this point, we’ll remember it as the day our servers felt the shock wave of a web traffic explosion.  If anyone is still interested: David Kernell, a college student in Tennessee, and the son of Tennessee democratic representiative Mike Kernell, was indicted by grand jury in late October.  His trial begins on December 16th, and faces up to 5 years and fines.  Not so “anonymous” now, eh David?  A court has also ordered the e-mails in both of governor Palin’s Yahoo! accounts be preserved for further investigation.

Another dishonorable mention is the state of Ohio election information and registration website that also came under attack, and experienced some brief downtime in late October.  (H/T to Reuters)

Technology Promises

I also want to give a nod back to another item I’ve talked about here: Science Debate 2008.  We’ve got a list of policies and action-items promised to us from pre-president-elect Obama in the realm of technology.  I’ll be saving a copy and keeping score for the next four to eight years.

Along the same lines is Obama’s “Blueprint for Change” video on technology issues.  Maybe you missed it?  Don’t feel bad; for whatever reason, this wasn’t released until the night before the election, effectively burying it in the rest of the 11th hour buzz.

Hi-Tech Election Day Coverage

Election night itself was a grand display of technology as well.  CNN debuted it’s new “hologram” technology – much to the chagrin of pocket protector pencil neck purists who are still complaining two days later that the effect isn’t actually a hologram.  “True” hologram or not, I personally found it a bit silly.  We’ll see if CNN or others bother with this technique down the road.

Ratings speak volumes though, and CNN enjoyed second place of 14 major networks covering the event with 12.3 million viewers.  ABC was the victor, at just over 13 million viewers.  In all, it’s estimated about 71 million viewers tuned in on Tuesday to watch the results unfold.  As impressive at it sounds, it’s still over 25 million shy of this year’s past Super Bowl.  Apparently the world’s couch potatoes are still more interested in the Patriots than in patriotism. (Nielsen’s complete ratings here.)

Nielsen also kept an eye to the web to gauge coverage ratings in cyberspace.  There’s a comprehensive list here if interested; CNN, MSNBC and Yahoo! News being the top three destinations for surfers on Tuesday. The official campaign sites also received a boost on Tuesday, with Obama’s site receiving 1.2 million unique visitors, and McCain’s site receiving 479,000 unique visitors.

The Future

Lastly, let’s look ahead to some new developments that will affect us going forward.

While not related to presidential politics per se, this is still a governmental policy decision that flew under the radar with all the elections buzz, that could mean huge developments in the wireless arena.  On Tuesday, the FCC approved a measure to free up “white spaces” for unlicensed (read: free but regulated) use.  In short, this means unused areas of the wireless spectrum in the general area of digital TV transmissions can be used by consumer devices.  This coveted piece of intangible mathematical electromagnetic real estate means higher bandwidth (faster) transmission of information to and from consumer devices, at greater distances than the current public bands allow.  It’s been a long fought battle mostly centered around issues of interference with licensed bands (at least, that’s the PR friendly argument – it’s probably been a long fought battle because telecommunications companies have sunk billions into competing technologies that may have just been rendered obsolete.)  To appease the interference complaints (some of which are probably valid), devices will have to be extremely smart: they’ll be required to be GPS aware, and to communicate over the Internet with a central database to announce their position and ask permission for an interference free frequency.  There’s a loophole for less intelligent devices, though they’ll have to pass some pretty rigorous interference tests.  You can read more here.  Dell claims to have laptops with “white space radio” already in the works that you can learn about here.

The last “bit” we have to pass on is some news about some technology related appointments to the Obama transition team.  Named to the team include Google philanthropy officer Sonal Shah, and Julius Genchowski who is a former IAC executive and former chief council to former FCC chairman Reed Hundt.  Rumors abound about Google CEO Eric Schmidt may be in the running for U.S. Chief Technology Advisor as well.




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